Alex Murphy found community through football. He spends his weekends cheering on the Arsenal women’s team near his north London address at Ipswich Town, where he has a season ticket, or playing against five with his sides Saka Potatoes and Olympique Mayonnaise. He’s been watching every World Cup since 2002, enjoying the inclusiveness of the event, which even his mum, who doesn’t really care about football, caters to. But this year he won’t tune in.
He made the decision in January, when it was revealed that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died after Qatar launched an unprecedented construction programme, mainly in preparation for the tournament.
Murphy was already disappointed that the country, which has a troubled track record of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, won the bid and was given the opportunity to sport-wash its image. “I think if you don’t participate in it, you partially define what it is about the game you love,” he says.
“Football can give people hope,” says Jonathan Tomlinson, editor of a photo book that captured fans from around the world in 2018. “It gives people a reason to be together and put their differences aside.” He wanted to release another issue to coincide with the World Cup, but decided the event had become the epitome of elitism, corruption and a lack of empathy, and decided therefore decided not to participate. “No one cares about the migrant workers or the people who are cold at home,” he says.
Jessica Irving, co-founder of Dalston-based five-a-side team Peaches FC for women and non-binary players during lockdown, agrees: “Football has become a matter of shared queer joy and community in my life. demands anti-racism, anti-sexism, and this is none of that.”
She is “disgusted” by a tournament “built on the blood of slaves” in a country where, according to Sharia interpretation, homosexual sex can carry a death sentence. Women also lack basic rights, and a Human Rights Watch report last year found that they must ask their male guardians for permission to travel abroad, on government scholarships, to study abroad, in many government posts, up to a certain age to work and make some decisions about their reproductive health.
“It just doesn’t feel the same as usual,” says Shivani Dave, a non-binary journalist and TikToker who covered a gay gooners’ protest outside the Qatar embassy on Saturday. They’ve been playing soccer since they were kids and are with a team called the Golddiggers in East London. “Normally I’d love to support it,” says Dave, but this year they add, “I’d rather have friends over and see a Christmas movie than go to the pub and see the World Cup.”
Dave thinks it’s important that the West speak out against homophobia in Islamic countries, where they said many laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights stem from a colonialist interpretation of Christian values. In her family’s homeland of India, there is evidence that queer relationships and trans bodies are worshiped, but that faded with British rule. Not seeing the World Cup is one way to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community abroad.
According to a recent poll, six in ten people in Britain oppose Qatar hosting the World Cup because of anti-gay laws, with 39% believing teams should not attend the event. But there was plenty of reluctance from English fans to commit to a boycott. “What do we stand for in this country?” asks Irving. “Nothing.”
Europe was louder. Since last year, a campaign in Norway has called for non-attendance and former Finland captain Tim Sparv was among the first to encourage players to speak out. Fans have hung banners at German Bundesliga matches and across France and Spain local authorities have vowed not to broadcast matches in public places. On TikTok, calls for #boycottqatar2022 have garnered more than 4.1 million views, including a video of a construction worker’s family member dying while on the job in circumstances he describes as “modern day slavery” in Qatar.
But “Britain lives and breathes football,” says 21-year-old Goalposts League coach and referee Nathan Balogun-etti. “If there were no football, there would be a riot.” Unlike his friends, who will be following the games, he is not keen on supporting a tournament with a Fifa corruption background.
In the last four and a half years, Fifa has increased its World Cup revenues by more than $1 billion (£840 million), helped by lucrative deals with partners such as Qatar Energy. But the governing body has asked the participating nations to “let football on the stage”.
“Qatar’s reporting and condemnation over the past few weeks has been encouraging,” Murphy said. He hopes a boycott will affect ratings and finances, and show event organizers in the future that the human and environmental costs matter to the public. His “greatest fear” is that, given the ongoing World Cup, “this conversation is best put on hold and forgotten.”